Wrong foot: How faulty onboarding can send employees stepping toward the door

In a tight labor market, it’s crucial that the last stage of hiring—onboarding—isn’t an afterthought.
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· 5 min read

First impressions are powerful and, at times, powerfully awkward—just ask Greg from Meet the Parents. The stakes aren’t just high for sweaty-palmed boyfriends vying for parental approval; employers also have one shot to make a good introduction to a new employee through onboarding.

But there’s no guarantee that an employee’s onboarding experience will turn out as beautifully as the wedding altar Owen Wilson’s character hand-carved out of a single block of wood. According to a 2021 study of over 700 US employees who started a new job during the pandemic, 71% finished onboarding unsure of who they should “build relationships with,” 62% didn’t have a “clear idea of the organization’s culture,” and over half didn’t have a clear idea of “how to be productive in their role.”

In our June series, we’re exploring how companies structure their onboarding processes in hopes their new hires want to come back for day two…and three…and 3,000. Today, we’re taking a look at how employers can fall short of that goal.

Onboarding Island, population: one. Taylor Kartavicius, a marketing strategist, told HR Brew he felt unsupported when he joined several startups as their first marketing hire. (Only one of these companies, Kartavicius said, had a dedicated HR staffer at the time he worked there.) 

Kartavicius said that in the past, he often reported to CEOs or others who he believed lacked marketing experience; he recalled feeling like some of his bosses had no clear vision for his role, much less his onboarding.

“I think oftentimes, when they hire their first marketer, it’s because they’ve realized that they need someone to kind of step in and do all the work for them, but they don’t really understand the scope of that work,” Kartavicius explained.

Kartavicius said in these experiences, he felt like he was “on an island,” left to sort out his responsibilities without collaboration or communication about expectations.

“You get the initial [documentation] everyone seems to have…where it’s like, ‘Read this, read that,’ then that basically is your onboarding. It basically only took like two or three days to get on board,” Kartavicius later said. “And then all of a sudden, it’s like, alright, well, take a look at our Google Ads structure and take a look at our website, and then we’ll kind of let you come up with some recommendations for things to change.”

The two-day experience that Kartavicius described sounds more like orientation than onboarding, according to Amber Clayton, a senior director at SHRM’s knowledge center operations.

Clayton told HR Brew that some organizations use the terms interchangeably, “but onboarding is not comprised of completing direct-deposit forms.”

“[Onboarding] involves some training, maybe observation of individuals, and lots of communication between the manager and the new hire [and] the new hire buddy and the new hire,” Clayton said. “Onboarding is not a one-day [process], and most of the time, not a one-week process. It’s longer than that to get somebody fully up to speed and acclimated to the organization and to their roles.”

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Clayton said that organizations that don’t take this approach to onboarding can risk losing talent.

“If someone comes on board with the organization [and] they feel like they’re not supported, they don’t have the resources, the knowledge, people aren’t assisting them in learning their new roles, they’re likely going to look for something else,” Clayton said.

Ultimately, Kartavicius said he decided to switch from startups to a more established marketing team in part to benefit from having onboarding led by “dedicated HR people [for]  each individual department,” which he said made it “easier to ask questions.”

Sit and wait. Evan, a data scientist who asked that we only publish his first name, described his expectations for onboarding simply: a clearly communicated plan, some initial projects “to help ease you into things,” and “a mentor or a boss or some people that are trying to make that transition easier.”

Evan said the onboarding for his first job out of college in 2018 at a major tech company fell far short of those expectations. Between his recruitment cycle and his start date, Evan said the team had made little progress. As a result, Evan and his cohort of new data scientists showed up to find nothing to do.

In Evan’s case, the bad onboarding process was just the first sign of a negative experience; he said he felt “bamboozled” by the job. His manager and HR told him to attempt to find another job within the company, but he said they offered little assistance. Eventually, he stopped going to work at all and spent his days applying for new jobs. Still, he remained employed there for five months, collected a $90,000 salary, and gained no professional experience. He never met his manager.

“People don’t believe almost how bad some of the onboarding experiences are. Or, like, I think it’s hard to impress upon people the extent to which I did nothing for [the large tech company], while employed there for a while,” Evan said.

Damage done. For Evan and Kartavicius, onboarding was the beginning of their decisions to off-board. When we asked Evan if he would ever consider applying for another role at his former employer, given his experience, he just laughed.

“I would never,” Evan said.—SV

Do you work in HR or have information about your HR department we should know? Email [email protected] or DM @SusannaVogel1 on Twitter. For completely confidential conversations, ask Susanna for her number on Signal.

Quick-to-read HR news & insights

From recruiting and retention to company culture and the latest in HR tech, HR Brew delivers up-to-date industry news and tips to help HR pros stay nimble in today’s fast-changing business environment.